Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and the N.B.A. Kaleidoscope
The era of N.B.A. superstars being empowered to choose the teams that they play for with free agency began when Oscar Robertson’s antitrust lawsuit, initiated in 1970, was settled in 1976. The era of superstars also functioning as their own team builders began when LeBron James, then of the Cleveland Cavaliers, staged a live television special in 2010 called “The Decision,” during which he announced, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” I missed the live announcement, because I was at dinner with my wife for our anniversary, celebrating our own “Decision.” Afterward, I was driving through a small town in Long Island, when a man wearing a blue Knicks jersey burst out onto a porch, yelling obscenities into the night. From this, I gathered that James was not coming to the Knicks.
Some things, like the general aversion of superstar athletes to the klieg-light New York work environment of James Dolan’s Knicks, have not changed since “The Decision.” But the sense of shock that a superstar could not only write his own ticket to the team of his choosing but coördinate a few other tickets has mostly worn off. Or so I thought. What exactly is at the root of the delight that so many people—obsessive N.B.A. fans and casual followers alike—feel at the sight of the frantic swapping of players and teams that erupts every year at the start of free agency? Perhaps it’s the illicit mood of conspiracy and betrayal. Negotiations between teams and free agents were supposed to commence this past June 30th, at 6 P.M., but, within minutes, several high-profile deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars were announced, the equivalent of a couple announcing a marriage a few minutes after claiming to have met for the first time.
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Forty per cent of the league’s players were free agents this year. Within the first week of free agency, three billion dollars’ worth of contracts had been signed. As the N.B.A. analyst Tom Haberstroh noted, out of the twenty-four players who participated in the 2017 All-Star game, only eight still play for the same team, and three of those eight play for the Golden State Warriors. Part of the pleasure of anticipating these trades, surely, is the idea that, while you need a transcendent talent or three to win championships, you also need chemistry. And chemistry can be hard to predict.
These athletes are humans with their own personalities, after all, and many of them have to figure out a way to function on a team without being its best player. Some players, like Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, never do. And those are the famous ones that you have heard of. To watch even a little bit of the N.B.A. summer league is to feel a chill at the enormous amount of talent that is so close to N.B.A. caliber but will not make the cut. The players who make it have, among their myriad talents, the ability to adapt to a team situation.
As anyone who has ever played with a chemistry set knows, sometimes you make a big mess and have to start over. The speed with which players and teams turn fickle has reached dizzying heights, driven both by teams and by players. Two years ago, the Clippers pitched Blake Griffin as the face of their franchise, going so far as to stage a mock jersey retirement in a darkened arena as a choir sang, and calling him a “Clipper For Life.” Six months later, they traded him to the Pistons. A few days ago, some of the assets that the Clippers acquired in the wake of the Griffin trade were combined with the Italian player Danilo Gallinari and traded to the Thunder in exchange for Paul George, who himself had yelled at an ecstatic Oklahoma audience just a year ago, upon signing a contract, “I’m here to stay!”
Acquiring Paul George was not an end in itself, though; it was the price of admission to the Kawhi Leonard show. Leonard has long been thought of as the league’s most taciturn superstar—no social-media presence, no quips, the disarmingly minimal and honest answers in post-game interviews, such as the time he was asked what a championship would mean for Toronto fans and for all of Canada, and he replied, “I’m really not sure, I guess you really have to ask somebody on the street.” He plays the game at a fast tempo that has the curious quality of seeming to be almost slow. He’s not slow. He is deliberate in his movements, calculated like an engineer with his footwork, and powerfully explosive when he makes a move. In a surprising reveal, it turned out that all these traits applied to Leonard’s behind-the-scenes negotiating style: he is cunning, he is calm under pressure, and he gets the job done.
This free agency, chaotic as it initially unfolded, now seems tidy in hindsight: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the Nets was the overture. Leonard and George to the Clippers was the spectacular crescendo. And the Russell Westbrook trade rolled in as a thundering encore. My vantage on the N.B.A. is from the point of view of New Orleans, where I live, and the N.B.A. kaleidoscope seems most remarkably symmetrical and strange when seen from the Pelicans’ perspective. At the end of last season, the Pelicans were mired in gloom. Going to games at the Smoothie King Center was like visiting a house where the parents were divorced but forced by circumstances to live together for a few more months. The Pelican star Anthony Davis had asked for a trade midway through the season, specifying the Lakers as his preferred destination. The Pelicans, out of some combination of spite and savvy, refused to grant his wish. Davis was benched. The team claimed that they wanted to prevent their asset from getting hurt; the N.B.A. insisted that Davis, one of the league’s marquee players, play, or there would be a fine. The second half of the season saw Davis limited to about twenty minutes a game. He sat out most fourth quarters.
I went to a number of games during this time, in order to soak in the strange atmosphere and to get a look at visiting superstars like Nikola Jokić, Ben Simmons, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who eventually became the league M.V.P. Such is the current fashion in basketball footwear that all these stars wore pastel-colored sneakers in shades of pink, green, and blue. Their festive footwear seemed to mirror the happy mood of these players and their teams, all bound for the playoffs while the Pelicans—whose pregame warm-up jerseys looked like pajamas—sank into slumber. And then came the draft lottery and the ludicrous good luck of getting the No. 1 pick, which turned into Zion Williamson, who is both replacing Davis as the team’s standard-bearer and prime ticket seller and also as the most anticipated rookie since LeBron James.
There was a brief pause to wonder if Williamson would be enough to make Davis stay, but there was never much chance of that; things had gone from bad to worse in the divorce. Not long after the draft, Davis was granted his wish and traded to the Lakers. So it goes. The Lakers, in the wake of the disappointment of not landing Leonard, scrambled to fill out their roster. Among their signings was DeMarcus Cousins. Two years ago, the Pelicans’ media guide featured Cousins and Davis side by side on the cover under the new team slogan, “Do It Big.” Now they both play for the Lakers, along with Rajon Rondo, who also re-signed with the Lakers, and who was the point guard on that Pelicans’ team with Davis and Cousins.
Rondo is known to be a difficult and recalcitrant but highly cerebral and skilled player. Perhaps sensing a limited market for his services at the end of the most recent season, he granted a very forthcoming interview in which he spoke with old-guy exasperation about the younger generation: “Guys aren’t at the age where they can have a man-to-man conversation versus texting you,” he said. “Everybody wants to text you: ‘How you doing? We cool?’ People don’t understand how to have a real conversation and talk out problems.”
Somewhere in the midst of this most recent turn of the N.B.A. kaleidoscope, I thought of a haunting quotation that I heard a long time ago. It takes place in this video, and is one of those strange moments of basketball cinéma vérité when something unplanned happens. The camera is fixed on a seven-foot-tall Turkish player named Semih Erden, who is standing in front of a hotel gift shop while being interviewed by a couple of reporters. This is in February of 2011. Erden has just learned that he has been traded by the Boston Celtics to the Cleveland Cavaliers. When I looked into the clip more deeply, I learned that Erden was coming back from an injury and had just taken a few days to go home for personal reasons, whatever that might mean. Who knows what events in his life were animating his face at that moment? The camera zooms unsteadily on his face, and he looks genuinely surprised and upset by the news of his trade, almost tremulous. He makes some remarks about how this is part of the business of the game.
Then the video cuts to his walking across the lobby and, by chance, running into Lawrence Frank, then an assistant coach with the Celtics, and therefore someone who was at least indirectly involved in the trade. Frank, at five foot seven, is one of the shortest coaches in the N.B.A. The young seven-footer with shaggy hair bends down, and Frank embraces him in an obviously consoling mode and vigorously pats him on the back. When they stand to face each other, Frank holds Erden’s arm. “The one thing about the N.B.A.,” says Frank, his right index finger up in the air drawing circles, “It goes round and round. We will see each other again. We gonna miss you, though. You did a very, very good job.” “Thank you,” says Erden, and he puts a giant paw on the coach’s shoulder.
Frank’s phrase stayed with me. It’s prophetic, though not for Erden, who was soon out of the league and now plays in Turkey. But it applies to a lot of what goes on in the business of “the league,” and it applies to Frank, who was Doc Rivers’s assistant at the time of the video, and would soon take the head coaching job of the Detroit Pistons. He later worked as an assistant coach to Jason Kidd, his star player when he coached the New Jersey Nets, earlier in the decade. Now he is the president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Clippers, who, of course, have just signed Leonard and George. The Clippers’ head coach is Doc Rivers. Rivers won his sole championship in 2008, with perhaps the original superteam—Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and a young point guard named Rajon Rondo. Another twist of the N.B.A. kaleidoscope, whose new configurations always fascinate.